Finding the Line Between Frugality and Deprivation

Frugality is a spectacular tool for immediately seeing positive financial results in your life. Whenever you find ways to get most of the same value in your life for a lower price, or you find a different avenue completely to fulfill your needs and wants without the same sticker impact, you’re managing to still enjoy life while spending less than you have before.

There’s a catch, though. At some point, you’re going to cross a line where the frugal strategy is no longer enjoyable. You’re going to give up something you care deeply about and find yourself feeling miserable about it.

The reaction to that state is usually a bad one. People who dig deep into frugality and then find themselves miserable often respond by undoing most of the frugal changes, even many changes that have little or no life impact for them. When they cross that line where they feel a sense of deprivation, that’s it. They’re done with frugality for a while.

It’s a lot like binge dieting. People do really well on a diet for a while, then suddenly they find themselves giving up something that they don’t really want to give up. The “rules” they’ve adopted for their diet don’t allow them to have some occasional treat and they begin to feel deprived and miserable, and when a person starts to feel that way, it’s not long before the inevitable diet backlash occurs where they undo most of the positive and non-miserable habits they’ve developed.

I’ll use myself as an example. I gave up a lot of hobbies when I decided to strongly commit to frugality. I gave up golf. I gave up almost all drinking, cutting it from a regular thing to a highly irregular thing. I gave up several of my collections. The thing is, I didn’t mind most of those changes, really.

There were two major cuts that did bother me, though. One, I completely swore off buying books. Two, I completely swore off buying board games.

Those two things were the hobbies I was most passionate about, and it didn’t take long for both changes to really chafe at me. I felt deprived. I had thoughts like, “If I can’t even buy myself a book when I want it, what good is a financial turnaround?”

On more than one occasion, I went through short periods where I just gave up on the whole financial turnaround and spent money to my heart’s content, only to regret it deeply a few days later.

What I gradually learned over time is that when you cross that line into feeling deprived, you’re usually going to end up causing serious long-term damage to your financial plans if you stay there very long. Sticking with something that makes you feel miserable, even for a while, is going to eventually result in a nasty backlash.

The truth is that frugality is not about feeling deprived. It’s about finding situations where the value that you give up is much less than the money you’re saving, and deprivation comes from situations where the value that you give up is more than the money you’re saving. In my eyes, frugality is the opposite of deprivation. Frugality is about getting maximum value out of every transaction, and you’re not getting maximum value if you’re feeling deprived.

In my eyes, the best state of frugality is one where you’ve explored many frugal tactics and stick with all of the ones that don’t cause a sense of deprivation or loss. That sense of deprivation and loss comes from an underlying gut feeling that you’ve given up more than you’ve gained, and if you’ve done that, you’re not being frugal any more.

Everyone’s line is different. Rather than giving you specific guidelines to follow, all I can do is give you some great strategies for finding your own line, pushing right up to it, but not overstepping it, so that you’re getting maximum value out of every dollar you spend.

Let’s dig in!

Figure out the handful of things that really matter to you and box them off. I’ve found that the surest route to a sense of deprivation when you’re trying to be frugal is to cut back too hard on the handful of core things that you truly care about in life. The truth is that most people have a small handful of things upon which their day-to-day sense of contentment rests, and when you cut into that sense of contentment, that’s when people feel miserable.

For me, cutting into my core hobbies – mainly reading and tabletop gaming – form the one big area of that sense of deprivation. I need to have some outlet into those hobbies, whether it be time to practice them or money to spend on them. If I have more time, I need less money; if I have more money to spend, I don’t need quite as much time. Regardless, I need to devote some time and money in my life to those core hobbies.

For my wife, good coffee is one big area that forms deprivation for her. She grinds coffee almost every morning and is very particular about her coffee. Two or three cups of good coffee in the morning are vital to her, and without that good coffee, she can feel really deprived.

We know those areas in our lives. We understand those areas. It’s far better to let us have our breathing room in those areas than it is to cut back on them, because if we cut back on them, we begin to feel deprived and when we feel deprived we tend to make irrational spending decisions in those areas and in other areas in life.

Figure out the two or three things that really bring a ton of value to you and that leave you feeling deprived when they’re cut and leave those areas alone. Don’t cut back in those areas. (You can obviously do things like bargain hunt, but don’t cut back on the things you value.) Leave them alone and cut back strongly in other areas where you don’t feel that sense of deprivation.

Experiment with frugal tactics, but don’t overcommit right off the bat. Most of the time, when I’m trying out a new frugal strategy, I do it as a pure “trial run.” I rarely commit in a large way to a new frugal strategy unless I can see for myself that it works and that it doesn’t lead to a frugal backlash.

A great example of this comes from meal prepping. By meal prepping, I mean the strategy of preparing lots of copies of the same meal at once and saving the copies for later, usually in the freezer, for easy meals later on. At first, I was concerned that this would be a lot of extra work for not a whole lot of savings, so I committed as little as possible to a trial run.

I bought a couple of very cheap freezer-safe soup containers and tried it with a big batch of soup first, and what I found was that it actually didn’t take that much longer to make a triple batch of soup in a big pot than a single batch in a bit smaller pot. I’d then just ladel the extra soup into the containers, label them, and pop them in the freezer so that later all I had to do was defrost them to prepare soup for supper. It actually saved time overall, because it made meal prep on later nights much shorter, and it made eating at home more convenient on busy nights.

After that trial run, I gradually scaled up. I bought some freezer-safe pans with lids and made lasagna in them, then a tuna casserole. Before long, our freezer was stacked with made-ahead meals.

Here’s the thing: if I had found that meal prep was something that was too much effort, that it didn’t give enough value for the extra effort, I would have stopped. Even more, I would have stopped before I invested very much in it – just a few freezer-safe soup containers and a bit of time making a big batch of soup.

Try new frugal strategies. See if they work. If they don’t, roll back just that strategy. Don’t decide that cutting back is terrible and that all of frugality is horrible and undo all of your progress. Just cut the specific tactic that isn’t clicking in your life.

If you feel miserable or deprived, focus on finding the single tactic or two that’s making you feel that way and roll back just that tactic. The “honeymoon period” that many people go through when they first start turning things around is a wonderful thing. It gets people to try a bunch of new tactics all at once and they often see a bunch of great results.

However, after a few months, that “honeymoon” period wears off and people sometimes find themselves feeling mildly deprived. You might find yourself with a sense that you’re missing out on things and you don’t really know why, and without a specific idea of what’s dragging you down, you’re often very prone to just rolling back lots of frugal tactics (save the ones that you’ve already embedded deeply into your life).

That’s usually a huge mistake. If you ever find yourself feeling a mild sense of being deprived, don’t blame frugal tactics in general. Almost always, that sense of deprivation is coming from a specific tactic or two that took a while for the downside to really click with you.

Instead, try to figure out specifically what’s making you feel deprived. When you think about your life, what specific thing is now missing that was once there? It may take time to figure this out, and that’s okay. Give it time. It’s far more important to get the right answer here than to get the fast answer.

When you figure it out, roll back just that specific tactic (or two) and you’ll find the malaise going away.

For me, this sense of deprivation really came from completely cutting myself off from bookstore visits. I went from stopping by twice a week to basically not stopping at all. Today, I stop at a local independent bookstore (specifically, Plot Twist Bookstore in Ankeny, IA) about once every three weeks on average. That’s enough for me. I don’t need to stop every week, but if I don’t ever visit a bookstore, I feel like something’s gently missing. Three weeks is about right for me, and I usually set aside a few dollars to spend there when I visit.

Try lots of free or very low cost things, even if they seem way outside your comfort zone. Often, a sense of deprivation from frugal tactics comes from eliminating something from your life without anything to replace it. You realize that shopping trips with your friends are expensive and you cut them out… but then you’re just sitting at home some Saturdays. You realize that golf outings are pricy, but then you find yourself sitting at home sometimes.

You’ll feel deprived if you do that! Don’t do that!

Instead, fill that time by diving into other things you could be doing. I recommend simply dabbling into lots of new things and seeing what clicks with you. Here are eight extremely frugal activities I deeply love that fill a lot of my hours. If you want more, here’s a list of 102 free things to do. Need more? Head over to your community’s website and see what organizations are in town and what activities are on the community calendar. Need even more? Visit Meetup and see what groups are meeting on a regular basis.

Try new things. Try things that you aren’t sure if you’d like. Try things that you think you might even actively dislike, but you’ve never tried before. Give them all a shot with an open mind and see whether any of them click with you.

With me, what often happens when I do this is that I end up with more interesting possibilities for things to do than I ever will have time to complete in my life. I genuinely have more things now that I want to devote time and energy to without spending money than I ever did when I was spending money like it was water. Time is the challenge now, not money.

Figure out the things that bring you peace and emphasize them in your life. One valuable thing that I’ve learned over the years is that even if I feel a little deprived in one area of my life, if it is counterbalanced with a strong sense of contentment or peace in another area of life, I end up barely noticing that sense of deprivation.

If some of the areas of my life are very good, then it pulls up the rest of my life.

Thus, it’s well worth your time to cultivate a sense of happiness and peace and contentment in many areas of your life. Work on building a good marriage and a good relationship with your children. Work on building a robust social circle.

More than that, work on finding a hobby or an aspect of your work that allows you to find a “flow state.” That’s the surest path to contentment I’ve ever found in my life.

What do I mean by “flow state”? It means when you’re working on something in a physically and/or mentally engaging way and it becomes so engaging that you lose track of time and even of the place you’re at. It’s when you’re engaged in something really interesting or really intense and then you look up at the clock and two or three hours have passed. That state feels good, as does the aftermath of it. Being in a flow state is absolutely the most content feeling that I’ve found in life, and if I can find it regularly, then I can overlook a bit of discontent in other areas of life.

I try to make those things central in my life. I consciously try to put in time every single day to strengthen my relationship with Sarah and with my kids. I put in time pretty regularly to strengthen relationships with my closest friends. I wall off blocks of time for my hobbies so that I can get into that flow state with them, and I do everything I can to encourage a flow state when I’m working.

If I feel content and joyful about many areas of my life, a little bit of discontent elsewhere flows right under the bridge.

Extract as much joy from anticipation as possible. As I mentioned earlier, I go to a bookstore about once every three weeks. It’s a ritual that I enjoy deeply – browsing the shelves, finding so many that I want to read and own and leave on my bedside table for a while, smelling fresh print on a page and the sawdust-like aroma of a new book, holding a book in my hand as I leave the store and knowing I’ll be reading it soon.

A few days before I go, I start thinking about it. I start anticipating that visit.

I used to think that the anticipation was terrible. I just wanted to cut to the chase and jump ahead to the pleasure of the event itself. I was so impatient before Christmas when I was younger, for example.

Now, I’ve come to realize that the anticipation is half of the fun. The simple act of thinking about going to the bookstore soon lifts my mood. I’ll think about particular titles that I’ll look for, or what type of book I’m wanting to read next. I’ll wonder whether they’ll have any of that good, free coffee available.

Those thoughts flutter through my head for days and they consistently lift my mood. Sure, if I let it go on too long, I might get frustrated, but what I usually do is wait until just about the time when the anticipation might turn and then I’ll go. For me, that’s usually three or four days.

In other words, I milk anticipation for joy, not just the event itself. As soon as unfulfilled anticipation begins to turn into a sense of frustration or deprivation, that’s when I go, but I’ve usually already made the decision that I’m going to buy the book. I’m just enjoying the anticipation.

I do the same thing with family vacations, when I’m planning them out. I do the same thing with holidays. I do the same thing with Gencon, my one big splurge of the year, which is a giant convention for tabletop gaming that I attend with several old friends. I enjoy the anticipation and let it lift me up, and that lift is very, very good at keeping a sense of deprivation at bay.

Give yourself a “free spending allowance” each month. In the end, though, I do spend money on my hobbies and interests. I do buy books. I do buy board games. I do buy the occasional other item for a hobby or interest of mine.

I don’t feel guilty about it, either. Those things are a big part of why I work. They make me tick.

Instead, I just give myself full permission to spend a certain amount each month. I have a dollar limit for hobby spending, and within that dollar limit, I can spend without question or concern. If I want to buy something really big, I let it build for a few months.

By doing this, I don’t have to feel guilty about indulging occasionally in my hobbies. I don’t have to have a sense of deprivation by choosing not to spend on my hobbies, either. It keeps both a sense of deprivation from underspending and a sense of guilt from overspending at bay. It’s peaceful and joyful instead.

Final Thoughts

The goal of all of these strategies is to encourage people to dig deep into frugality and to cut back on all of the unimportant areas of their life, but to ensure joy and peace in the areas that really do matter. We all work for something – don’t throw away that something or else the entire journey will be undermined.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.